The Very Best Travel Books

The books below are not strictly travel books – but books that celebrate the magic of adventure and exploration. Books that have an adventurous spirit. A spirit of exploration and inquiry. Or maybe just books that I like to read while traveling.

The 15 Best Travel Books

1. The Worst Journey in the World by Cherry Apsley Gerrard

This is the best travel book ever written. The magisterial memoirs from a disastrous trip to the South Pole in the early 20th century.

“The Worst Journey in the World is to travel writing what War and Peace is to the novel. A masterpiece.” – The New York Review of Books

2. The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

The perfect mix of travel, exploration, and science. Stunningly awesome.

“Here is what a book can be.” – The New York Times Book Review

3. The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert wrote this before Eat, Pray, Love – and it’s way better.

Excerpt:
By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten.

4. The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

Henry Adams was the son of one President and the grandson of another. He recounts his life and travels – and with it the major events of 20th century history.

“The pleasure of reading The EDUCATION is the pleasure of seeing history come alive, of seeing it move, of seeing behind history to the actions and actors. It is the pleasure of seeing revealed the humanity so often concealed in history.” – Alfred Kazin

5. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

A riveting tale of explorers, spies, and lovers during the Second World War. The story bounces between the deserts of North Africa, a villa in Tuscany, and London during the blitz.

“A rare and spellbinding web of dreams.” – Time

6. The Fatal Shore – The Epic Story of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes

If a book has more adventure in it than this one I don’t think I’ve read it. Australia’s rip roaring history is recounted with color, passion, and narrative flare.

“An extraordinary volume – even a masterpiece – about the early history of Australia that reads like the finest of novels. A brilliant and enduring achievement… history of the highest order.” – Arthur M. Schlesinger

7. My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme

A book about Living in Paris and Southern France.
A memoir of Julia Child’s 10 plus years living in France, where she transformed herself from a diplomat’s wife to the author of a fantastically popular French cookbook.

“The result is a delight. On one level, it’s the story of how a 6-foot-2-inch, 36-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian discovered the fullness of life in France. On another, it recounts the making of “Julia Child,” America’s grande dame of French cooking. Inevitably, the stories overlap.” – NY Times

8. Rimbaud – A Biography by Graham Robb

“Superb… the single best work to read about this haunting and haunted poet.” – New York Times Book Review

Excerpt:
In the last three years, Rimbaud had spent about fifteen months at home and about twenty-one at sea or on the road. He had visited thirteen different countries – excluding coastlines seen from the deck of a ship – and travelled over 32,000 miles. He had worked as a pedlar, an editorial assistant, barman, farm labourer, language teacher, private tutor, factory worker, docker, mercenary, sailor, tout, cashier and interpreter, and he was about to add a few more jobs to the list. On almost every occasion, he had done something for which he was not previously qualified.

Though he lacked the most ordinary qualification of all – the baccalauréat – he had a working knowledge of five languages, had seen more sights and experienced more interesting intoxications than an English lord on the Grand Tour, published a book, been arrested in three countries and repatriated from three others. The most he had ever earned from his writing had been a free subscription to a magazine, but he had left behind a body of work that would one day open up new regions of the mind to poetic explorers. He had begged, been to jail, committed approximately twelve imprisonable offences with impunity, and survived war, revolution, illness, a gunshot wound, his own family and the Cape of Good Hope. He had been on intimate terms with some of the most remarkable writers and political thinkers of the age.

The Arthur Rimbaud who eventually washed up on the shores of East Africa was not a helpless innocent.

9. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The story of India’s rise to nationhood as experienced by one uniquely positioned family.

“A marvelous epic. Rushdie’s prose snaps into playback and flash-forward… stopping on images, vistas, and characters of unforgettable presence. Their range is as rich as India herself.” – Newsweek

10. Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden

The history of the Iran hostage crisis. How it happened, why it went on so long, and how it finally came to an end. The chapter on the failed helicopter rescue sent into Iran by President Carter is impossible to stop reading.

“Heart-stopping, and heart-breaking.” – The New York Times Book Review

11. In the Heart of the Sea – The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

The book based on Moby Dick's adventure's in the South Seas

“A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism. Just west of the Gal pagos Islands, the Nantucket whale ship Essex was struck on November 20, 1820, by an 85-foot bull sperm whale. Yet the sinking was only the beginning of a fantastic voyage.

For three months the 20 men who escaped the Essex drifted in three smaller open boats, enduring squalls, attacks by sharks and another whale, starvation, dehydration, madness, and despair, capped by eating the flesh of comrades who had begun to die offand, in one instance, casting lots to see who would be killed and eaten next. When eight remaining castaways were retrieved off the coast of Chile, they had sailed almost 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific.” – Kirkus Reviews

12. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

A memoir of a boy’s miserable – yet strangely magical – youth in the Irish town of Limerick.

Excerpt:
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

13. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

The story of one young Hmong child who has severe epilepsy and her family’s background, their difficult experience with Western Medicine, and the culture of the country they escaped from.

“Into this heart-wrenching story, Fadiman weaves an account of Hmong history from ancient times to the present, including their work for the CIA in Laos and their resettlement in the US, their culture, spiritual beliefs, ethics, and etiquette.” – Kirkus Reviews

14. A Peace to End All Peace – The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin

Want to know more about the Middle East? This is the book.

“Ambitious and splendid. An epic tale of ruin and disillusion. Of great men, their large deeds and even larger follies.” – The Wall Street Journal

15. Dragon Hunter – Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions by Michael J. Novacek and Charles Gallenkamp

The riveting biography of the explorer Roy Andrews Chapman.

“On his first journey to East Asia in 1909, when he was 25 years old, Andrews spent two weeks stranded on a deserted island; fended off sharks after his boat was capsized by a finback whale; survived typhoons, heatstroke, poisoned bamboo stakes, headhunters and 20-foot pythons. Employing his rudimentary knowledge of medicine, he delivered two babies, pulled several teeth and amputated a man’s mangled hand. He also sampled opium; befriended Mother Jesus, Yokohama’s most famous madam; enjoyed the pleasures of Shimonoseki, ‘the hardest-drinking port in the East’; and along the way collected 50 mammals, 425 birds and a new species of ant. And that’s in just the first 35 pages of this propulsive, nonstop biography.” – NY Tiimes